Ice is often recommended as the first course of action for a minor muscle-related injury because it can help reduce swelling and improve blood flow to the affected tissue. As a health and fitness professional, you can recommend the use of ice along with rest to reduce discomfort in a sore muscle, but what about a more intense form of cold therapy called cryotherapy? Is it appropriate for you to suggest that clients use whole-body cryotherapy to support their exercise efforts?
Whole-body cryotherapy is often used with athletes to help reduce core temperatures and promote recovery from a strenuous workout or competition. Sitting in an ice bath is the most common form of whole-body cryotherapy, and ice or cold tubs can often be found in the athletic training rooms of collegiate and professional sports teams. Ice baths can be an effective technique for promoting recovery because they reduce overall soreness, minimize swelling and, once out of the bath, can increase circulation. However, as anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sitting in a tub of ice knows, it can be extremely uncomfortable to remain in the near-freezing water for the recommended amount of time, usually from 10 to 20 minutes.
To achieve the benefits of whole-body cryotherapy in a shorter period of time, sport scientists have developed a different type of cryotherapy that involves the application of extremely cold temps from gas. Cryotherapy chambers, which resemble a cabinet with a place for your head to stick out, have become increasingly popular for competitive athletes. Today, specialized studios are popping up to offer cryotherapy services to anyone interested in freezing for a few minutes.
Clients, especially the extremely active ones who consume popular fitness media, may ask you about the benefits of cryotherapy, so it’s important to be able to answer their questions. Here are seven things to know about cryotherapy to help determine whether it is appropriate for an individual's fitness goals.
- Extensive research suggests that whole-body cryotherapy, whether via an ice bath or cryotherapy booth, can help reduce inflammation and restore functional capacity of muscles after strenuous exercise.
- Cryotherapy booths use liquid nitrogen-chilled air, which can reduce the air temperature to below -116° F (-110° C). Ice baths use water that is chilled to approximately 40-50° F (4-10° C). Two to three minutes in a cryotherapy booth is equivalent to 10 to 20 minutes in an ice bath, and being subjected to an extremely cold temperature for only a short period may be more manageable than sitting in cold water for a much longer period of time.
- Whether in a bath or a booth, exposure to the cold promotes recovery because the low temperatures cause vasoconstriction (shrinking) of capillaries and blood vessels. Furthermore, as a survival mechanism, the body will maintain blood in the core region to protect the vital organs. When the cold is removed, the heart pumps blood back to the extremities, which help brings back nutrients and oxygen to help repair damaged tissues.
- Brief exposure to extremely low temperatures initiates the body’s sympathetic nervous system, also known as the flight-or-fight response. This, in turn, prompts the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine (commonly called adrenaline) to accelerate the heart rate to pump blood to the body’s extremities, which is viewed as another benefit to cryotherapy.
- Using a cryotherapy booth does come with some risk of injury. It is important to be completely dry, as any moisture on the body can freeze to the skin and cause frostbite. In 2011, sprinter Justin Gatlin experienced frostbite after using a cryotherapy booth without wearing the recommended dry socks.
- Cryotherapy isn’t just for athletes or the extremely active. Because it reduces inflammation and soreness, it can also be beneficial for individuals dealing with arthritis or other chronic musculoskeletal issues.
- For those who work in extremely hot environments, cryotherapy, whether in a bath or booth, after an extremely strenuous outdoor workout can help lower core temperature, which is an important component of recovery. Returning the body’s core temperature to homeostasis is an important part of the recovery process—the quicker the recovery, the faster one is able to get back into action.
When it comes to the use of cryotherapy, much depends upon an individual’s comfort level and ability to afford the expensive cryotherapy treatment booths. The only expense associated with an ice bath is picking up a couple of bags of ice from a convenience store on the way home from a workout. The downside, however, is sitting in freezing water for 10 to 20 minutes. A cryotherapy booth may cost a little more money, but the exposure is only for a few minutes at most.
If your client plans on performing extended workouts or competing in a challenging outdoor competition during the hot months of summer, it is appropriate to suggest the use of an ice bath to help reduce soreness and promote recovery. However, while there is a growing body research on the benefits of whole-body cryotherapy using cold gas, urge your client to first seek consultation from their primary care physician.
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